Clichés about the theater are quite durable, but in the era of the coronavirus, one of the oldest needs to be updated. In our new reality, the show will go online.
For true theater fans, there is no substitute for gathering together and watching talented performers act out a compelling story in real time. But unlike London in 1606, when Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre had its season curtailed by the plague, we can still enjoy the works of that master and many others while remaining snugly quarantined in our homes.
Streaming services are offering dramas, comedies and musicals — some recorded in the early days of television, others captured as recently as last year. Prices tend to be quite reasonable, and the quality is often remarkable. Here’s a rundown of some of your best options.
This is the largest source of theatrical performances online, with a huge range of offerings. One caveat: Many shows were originally telecast on PBS, so they may be familiar (or still sitting on the list of shows you recorded but never got around to watching).
Here you can find the musical “Falsettos” with Andrew Rannells and Christian Borle, “Red” with Alfred Molina as the painter Mark Rothko, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” with Audra McDonald as legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, and Rainn Wilson in the absurdist drama “Thom Paine (Based on Nothing).” The angst and dislocation of that character should feel very familiar about now.
BroadwayHD has the entire catalog of the 1970s “American Film Theatre,” a remarkably ambitious attempt to create film versions of great plays. These include Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” with Lee Marvin and Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist political allegory “Rhinoceros” with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. There’s also a thrilling trilogy of Shakespeare dramas reimagined by director Phyllida Lloyd as presentations by the inmates at a women’s prison.
Angela Lansbury fans can watch her in the original “Sweeney Todd” with George Hearn (filmed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1982). You also can catch the great Elaine Stritch in her one-woman show “At Liberty” from 2002, and Bette Midler as Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” a 1993 production that also features a child actor named Elisabeth Moss.
Subscriptions are $8.99 per month or $99.99 annually. broadwayhd.com
Digital Theatre offers a smaller but well-curated assortment of mostly British productions, heavy on the classics. Its many Shakespeare plays include “The Tempest” starring Simon Russell Beale, one of the U.K.’s greatest stage actors. American classics include Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” and “The Crucible,” as well as O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” starring Laurie Metcalf. There are also a few contemporary works, such as “The Container,” Clare Bayley’s drama about the smuggling of asylum seekers.
The catalog also features three plays with a Southern California connection: Arlene Hutton’s “Nibroc Trilogy,” which tenderly traces the travails of a couple navigating the changing American South in the years following World War II. They were filmed at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura (staged by British director Katharine Farmer) and won much praise in Times reviews.
Subscriptions are 9.99 pounds per month, or about $12.50. digitaltheatre.com/consumer
The streaming service offers seven — count ’em, seven — versions of “King Lear,” including ones starring Ian McKellen and Orson Welles. Its vast Shakespeare holdings also include the complete collection of the Bard’s plays presented by the BBC in the 1970s and ’80s, which includes such gems as John Cleese in “The Taming of the Shrew” and Derek Jacobi in “Richard II.”
If you want to celebrate Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday, you can choose between two versions of “Into the Woods”: the original theatrical production with Bernadette Peters or the 2014 movie with Meryl Streep. If you’re nostalgic for golden-era Broadway, a 1958 version of Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” with original stars Patricia Morison and Alfred Drake is also online.
Amazon Prime costs $119 a year. amazon.com
For all its voluminous offerings, Netflix has little in the way of theater performances. It does have “Shrek the Musical,” which might be a good way to entertain home-bound kids, and “Oh, Hello,” the 2017 Broadway show starting Nick Kroll and John Mulaney that’s a cross between theater and stand-up. netflix.com/browse
YouTube is, predictably, hit or miss. Amid the hundreds if not thousands of high school and middle school musical productions you may find some professional shows, including the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s hilarious “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).” As of this last weekend, it had been viewed more than 900,000 times. Given our collective need to laugh, that number may rise rapidly. youtube.com
PBS Passport is available to those who donate at least $5 a month to their local PBS station. It has some of the same productions as BroadwayHD, including the recent London staging of “The King and I” with Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe. There’s also a hilarious recent production of Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” starring Kevin Kline. pbs.org/passport/videos/
This digital library is available to anyone with a public library card. It’s dominated by films but it does have a solid collection of Shakespeare and Chekhov, as well as several productions by the avant-garde Wooster Group. kanopy.com/category/35
L.A. Theatre Works
If you’d rather listen to theater without the distraction of scenery, consider the collection of L.A. Theatre Works, which has been recording plays since the 1990s and has a formidable catalog of more than 500 performances. For $4.99, you can purchase digital downloads of everything from Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” to Charles Busch’s campy comedy “Die, Mommie, Die!” Did you miss the Fountain Theatre’s recent production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Between Riverside and Crazy”? You can hear the play here. latw.org/catalog
Audiobook provider Audible has been moving into the theater space, but for now its offerings consist of a few audio plays, including Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” trilogy and Martin Moran performing his autobiographical one-man show “The Tricky Part.” You also can find books about theater, including a behind-the-scenes look at “Dear Evan Hansen” written by the musical’s creators. Subscriptions are $14.95/month. audible.com